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The Birmingham Hippodrome Volunteer Scheme

by Alex R

January 27, 2006 -- Birmingham, England

In November 2005, I joined the Volunteer Scheme at the Birmingham Hippodrome theatre in England and decided to describe my experiences in case other readers might be interested in trying a similar job. The Hippodrome, which had a major redevelopment in 1998, is a theatre for several genres of shows, musicals in particular, but still has a close association to dance. As well as recently hosting major companies such as Grupo Corpo, Tap Dogs, and very soon the Bolshoi Ballet, it is also the home of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the UK that performs a wide range of classical and contemporary ballets several times a year.

The Hippodrome complex also includes DanceXchange, a dance centre staging shows by smaller companies in the Patrick Centre studio theatre. Regular visitors include Henri Oguike, Bare Bones, and Protein Dance. The centre also offers dance classes at all levels across the age range in many styles including flamenco, break dance, ballet, tap, and urban fusion. DanceXchange is clearly trying to make dance accessible as tickets to shows are rarely over £10. Further, classes are inexpensive and students pay by the week so there’s no pressure to be there every week. DanceXchange is one of nine national dance agencies in the UK that play a vital role in providing access to top quality dance experiences and increasing the popularity of the art form.

The Hippodrome’s close links to dance are part of the reason why I chose to become a volunteer. While the job is unpaid, for every five shifts I work I am entitled to a free ticket to a show of my choice. The full title of my job is Front of House Volunteer, and the structure of a shift works as follows: for a show starting at 7.30pm, all front of house staff have to be at the theatre at 6.30pm for a briefing by the duty managers where we are told which posts we are on, some information about the show, how many tickets have been sold for the performance including the number of wheelchair places, when latecomers can be admitted, and any other relevant information such as functions that may be going on in the building. During one meeting for ‘My Fair Lady’, the manager was almost drowned out by comedian Russ Abbott rehearsing one of his songs on stage!

The next step is to collect a torch from the manager’s office and go to my designated door. An important task is to check my door’s fire exits to make sure there are no obstructions and the safety equipment -- a fluorescent fire-marshal’s jacket, sheets explaining the evacuation drill for disabled people, and a fire extinguisher. The duty manager then comes round and we sign off that we have completed the fire checks. Thirty minutes before curtain up, another manager will give us a signal and we check tickets as the audience enters the auditorium. It is usually quiet at first as the majority of the audience decides not to enter the auditorium until the five-minute call is made, which results in a mad rush! Another important part of the job is to brief all disabled members of the audience and their escorts on the evacuation drill.

If you were ever curious about how the performers know when to begin, here’s how it works at the Hippodrome: just before the show is due to start, a duty manager will walk to the front of the stalls from where he can see all the seats in the theatre. When he is satisfied that all the auditorium doors are closed and that everyone has taken their seats, he will go backstage and tell the company to start the show. I do not know if this is the same for every theatre, but next time you go and see a show, look out for it.

Once the show begins we sit or stand inside the auditorium and watch the performance. This is another reason why I took the job; I spend so much of my money on theatre tickets that this seemed the perfect way to see shows for free!

During the interval I usually wander around with a rubbish bag and jokingly try to sell some litter to some children or pretend that the litter is my wages to liven up that part of the job.

When the show finishes we open our doors and stand by to answer any questions from the audience. When the auditorium is empty we look for any lost property and then wait until our level is clear before returning our torches and meeting together to be dismissed by a manager. If we are working a matinee show, we also have to do another litter pick, which is a major chore during the pantomime season! We usually leave the theatre about thirty minutes after the show has ended.

Being at the front of house also means being on the front line, and many complaints come to us first. I had a lady complain to me once that she had broken the heel of her shoe down a narrow ridge to a wheelchair platform, and even though I wanted to tell her that she should perhaps just look where she’s walking, I of course had to be polite and apologize to her. During the pantomime season, I had a girl of about eight come up to me crying her eyes out because she’d lost her grandmother. It was so sad I almost cried too! Luckily we eventually managed to reunite the family.

Working at the theatre also means we have the opportunity to meet the cast, if we are brave enough to approach them, as the theatre holds opening night parties at one of the bars which we are allowed to attend. These are also good opportunities to socialize with other Hippodrome workers, and allowing the volunteers and part-time staff to attend makes them feel welcome and part of the Hippodrome team. Being able to see the performers out of costume and close up is an exciting experience similar to seeing a celebrity in the street.

Becoming a volunteer has changed my perspective on the theatre going experience and theatres in general. For example, if you had to name all the components you thought a theatre was made up of, I imagine most would immediately list the auditorium, stage, backstage area, and lobby, and after a bit of thought, also include the cast dressing rooms. However, the Hippodrome also includes much more, such as offices for the BRB and theatre management, a massage centre, a dance studio for DanceXchange, the Patrick Centre theatre, and a staff green room. Overall the Hippodrome theatre building takes up six floors. Also, working in a theatre makes you realize just how much work is needed to put on a show. For instance, seeing the stage being set up while checking fire exits is intriguing and similar to finding out the secret to a magic trick.

Overall, despite not being paid, working at the Hippodrome is a fun experience, mainly because of the chance to see a top-quality show every shift, the friendly working atmosphere, and the opportunity to get an insight into how a theatre works, which is something I have been curious about for a long time. It is an experience that I would definitely like to continue for years to come.

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